Kristin O’Keefe

Kensington, MD

When I was a child, Nigeria meant stacks of cloth in my mother’s closet.

My mother is not African. She’s of Welsh-Irish-Assorted ancestry; most of her early life was spent in St. Louis. Her first international trip was a big one. She was 22 in 1962; one of the early waves of Peace Corps volunteers eager to see what the world had to offer. She lived in Nigeria for two years, teaching girls in secondary school.

Her English classes included more than a dash of mirth. After all, my mother was just a few years older than the girls she taught. Her students had good fun with my mother’s midwestern twang.  She teased too. One day she strutted down the corridor in the cloth wrapper worn by her students and her, preening and adjusting and fixing the wrapper as only teen girls would. They delighted in her imitation and plotted the next joke, until it was time for her to leave.

She brought a stack of African cloth back to the U.S., settled in Maryland and started a family.

I was the only shepherd garbed in a Nigerian wrapper in the school Christmas pageant. My careful explanation that most of my classmates were using old sheets held no sway at home. Down came the African cloth from the top shelf of her closet. (My mother has always had a minimalist wardrobe; the cloth only a finger tip away from her everyday wear.) And yes, it was the best costume–my cloth whispered of a history that predated anything found on the shelves of Target, it demanded a second look at the shy shepherd in the back corner.

The cloth and I retired from pageant appearances. Fast forward thirty years to International Night at my daughter’s school. She’s slated to perform an African dance, one of a corps of eager girls practicing at recess and after school with a teacher whose love for dance was contagious.

We tell my mother. She still has the wrappers of course, of course, fifty years now in her closet. The piece she picks is simple: cream and red stripes, tassels at the end. My mother wraps and arranges her willing granddaughter, who performs with great enthusiasm.

There’s a sad end to this story. My mother, daughter and I, we’re just visitors to a small bit of Nigeria, the bit found in stacks of cloth that lie safely in a closet.

Much has changed since my mother brought that cloth back fifty years ago. The girls she taught may be grandmothers too, with their own closets of wrappers. They may watch their granddaughters knowing, like my mother, that girls (and their vibrant attire) are built for learning, laughing, sashaying, teasing, dancing.

Leave a Reply